Pete Molinari‘s approach to music is reminiscent of great Greenwich Village folk artists like Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs and young Bob Dylan. With a precise focus on penning ruminative lyrics and layering them on top of gorgeous arrangements, his songs will likely stand the test of time — much like the voices of the Village before him.
But Molinari’s musical style won’t allow him to be lumped into one category or genre. In June 2014, he released his latest LP, ‘Theosophy.’ Chock full of various styles — from blues to indie rock to, yes, folk — ‘Theosophy’ is a perfect showcase of the British artist’s talents and ability to transcend expectations.
While at the Diffuser offices playing a couple of songs for us, we had the opportunity to catch up with Molinari about the new record, what it’s like working with the Black Keys‘ Dan Auerbach and how he feels traveling and performing in the states. Check out our exclusive chat below:
Did you approach ‘Theosophy’ differently than any of your previous records?
I’d say the approach is actually not that different. I’d say the approach and the principal is probably as organic and as real as anything else that I’ve done — and that’s how I’d like to continue to do it. I like getting in the studio and recording live as much as I can. I like analog, I like tape, all that, but more than anything, I just like getting in the studio with people. I’m not a fan of overdubbing if I can help it. I did little bits, of course, but for me, recording is preparation — learning the songs, you know? If you’re lucky enough to be in a really good studio and have great musicians with you, that’s a benefit, too. That’s one of the most important thing about it is who is on it, who is playing on the track.
I wouldn’t say the approach is any different from any record before, it just turns out the environment you make a record in is different. My first record was on an old tape machine singing on an acoustic guitar. You know, that format is going to be a little bit different. That’s the one thing I hate about music — well, I don’t hate it, but I never want to be inhibited by any format. It’s like, whether you’re playing an acoustic guitar or piano, whether you’re playing with a full band or whether it’s a jazz section or rock and roll, this, that, the other, whatever … a good song is always a good song.
You talk about your environment being different — part of that environment includes things like Spotify, iTunes, Facebook. Do outside forces like those affect how you make music?
I hear about all that stuff. It certainly doesn’t affect me, and if it did, I’d be worried because I think anything that affects your mind in making something — whether that’s catering to an audience or catering to this or that — makes you half the artist you could possibly be. First off, you should make art for yourself. Whether that’s painting, music, whatever it is. If I was an actor, I’d do the same thing. I’d probably want to be on a stage somewhere getting as immediate of an energy as I could. The energy for me has to be immediate. I understand I don’t live in the 1940s or ‘50s and I understand all of these things exist and there are certain ways for getting stuff out to people, but I never want to make and write music — or anything for that matter — with those things in mind. When you do, you start to not make the music you should be making. You’re not doing it for yourself.
The namesake for your latest album is the Theosophical Society, which actually started here in New York in the late 1800s. How did you get involved with this organization and what sort of effect did it — or does it still — have on you?
Around the same time I started to take music a bit more seriously, I stumbled onto the Theosophical Society. I mean, I took music seriously as a listener really early on — I came from a big family with loads of music going on. The first music I heard was Mediterranean, because my parents are Mediterranean. Then when I was at art school, I started doing some painting — it seemed like the only sensible thing to do while in school. At the same time as that, I started to attend lectures in England. Mainly, these lectures were just talks that you would go to to find out a bit more about yourself, and there were a few of them where I was getting more out of them than art school at the time. I found out about this little group called Little Elephant — they taught about metaphysics and stuff. Through that, I found out about the Theosophical Society.
I don’t actually belong to the society and I’m not a theosophist … I’m not a Buddhist and I’m not any of these things. Anything that helps me make some progress in myself or evolve a little bit better in the world, I’ll look at seriously. I like the word theosophy and what it means — it’s an awesome word. And the teachers that started it, like Helena Blavatsky, they’re very interesting people.
How then does the society fit into ‘Theosophy’?
Musically and content-wise, it’s substance and content over the style of the thing, and that’s something I learned from the society. If you listen to the last record or the one before that, there’s a difference because this time, for ‘Theosophy,’ I worked with Andrew Weatherall and Tchad Blake and guitarists like Little Barrie from Primal Scream and Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys. It was going to be a heavier-sounding LP, I was aware of that.
Content wise? I just always approach different subjects. I’m a fan of the love song, so there will always be that going on. I think that’s sometimes the hardest thing to approach, writing about your feelings. A love song is possibly the hardest thing to accomplish when you’re writing a song. Anyone can write a song about something they’re angry about or something that’s going on in the world politically. I think to actually get into your feelings, that love, that is harder. But I have songs that deal with the other stuff, like ‘Winds of Change’ and ‘My Son of Abraham’ and ‘What I Am, I Am.’ I don’t want to get too overly-philosophical about it, though — they’re just songs.
You mentioned the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. How did you first get hooked up with him?
Dan is one of those chaps I’d consider to be a friend. That’s always a big word to use in the music industry — you meet a lot of what people might call “associates,” or you run into people every now and again who might help you here and there. Dan was very friendly to me early on, it’s kind of weird. It’s around the same time I recorded at Toe Rag. He’s a smart chap who’s not just a musician, he has a great knowledge of all this studio stuff, which I generally don’t. I have a little bit of knowledge about it and how things are done, but as far as gear and as far as recording and this and that, he’s much smarter than people might think. I met him and Pat [Carney] around 2008 or 2009. I had just released a record in England called ‘A Virtual Landslide’ that I had recorded at Toe Rag Studios where the White Stripes recorded ‘Elephant,’ and we met up. We were doing some shows together at the time actually. I think our first meeting was at this place called Wilton’s Music Hall in London, where we played a show. I ended up supporting them in London at the Roundhouse. We became friends. I don’t see him every week, I’d like to. He’s a busy chap but he’s a sweet guy and he was kind enough to play some guitar for me. I really like his singing and his guitar playing.
How do you feel playing and traveling in the U.S.? Do you feel like you’re a part of the scene here, like you’re at home?
Strangely, and I’m not just saying this, but I’ve always felt more at home in the U.S. than I have in the U.K.
Why is that?
I don’t know. Again, as a kid the biggest influences on me came from my family. I had a lot of older brothers and sisters. I had cousins that were coming over when I was very young from San Francisco. They’re the only kind of cousins I have in America, and they brought things over — books and such, films, things like that. All of the American stuff, the literature, it had such a big influence on me as a youngster. I think those early years when I was at school, I loved what my family loved. It was American music and obviously a level of British ‘60s stuff.
I think as far as just being in America, I just feel they kind of understand what I play and write about and the content of what I’m trying to get across a little bit better. Also, the enthusiasm I get from people here is great. You get people in New York shouting at the street at you, asking you where you got your boots or telling you how great your hat is. That wouldn’t happen in London. London is amazing, but this, this is just an amazing place. All of these places — Atlanta, Nashville, D.C. — they’re amazing. I’ve spent a lot of time in L.A. and New York and Nashville. I’ve been to Memphis and New Orleans and I’m getting to see all these other places in the country. It’s great. I’m idealistic, too, you know? I’m always going, “Ah, well s–t, I remember that place being written about in that novel or seeing it in that film.” I just stand in these cities, daydreaming.
Pete Molinari’s ‘Theosophy’ is out and is available on digital, CD and vinyl formats. You can stay up-to-date with everything happening in Molinari’s world, including grabbing his full tour itinerary, at his official website here